What a satellite can do, balloons can do cheaper.
- By T. A. Heppenheimer
- Air & Space magazine, January 2002
(Page 2 of 8)
At any of the locations, the launch crews are constantly at the mercy of the weather. Senior meteorologist Glenn Rosenberger, who has been helping launch balloons for almost 50 years, uses five different mathematical models to predict the weather, and he says they sometimes give him five different answers. In that case, he says, he consults with his colleagues, who may disagree with his conclusions. In the end Rosenberger relies on his many years of experience to decide which prediction to trust.
Whatever the predictions, balloons can't be launched in anything but a calm. The team members sometimes get dispirited when they have a run of bad weather, says Klein, but when the weather turns favorable, "you can get two off in three or four days. Then the world looks a lot brighter. Before then it's, 'Oh, I'm never going to go home.' [Then] boom, you get one off and you see the light at the end of the tunnel.
"There are a couple of other balloon programs in the world," he continues, "but we are the best. We fly the biggest balloons, the heaviest payloads, for the longest durations at the highest altitudes. It's an incredible high when you get one off."
The scientists have a different perspective. Jonathan Grindlay describes the long waits for a launch as "painful." "You're not able to do as much with your finite grant dollars," he says.
Fortunately, it didn't take a month to get Grindlay's X-ray telescope in the sky over Ft. Sumner. Less than a week after the first attempt, the telescope, which weighed 4,800 pounds, made it up. "High-altitude winds blew it to the east, towards Texas," NASA manager Steve Smith recounts. "Then those winds changed and blew it to the west. It crossed Interstate 25 toward evening, in clear sky and at very high altitude. A lot of people saw it and started making phone calls. They thought they were seeing a UFO from Roswell."
For Grindlay, the launch was worth the wait. His team was able to evaluate the properties of a small prototype X-ray detector, and a larger instrument provided spectra for further study of the well-known X-ray source Cygnus X-1. And the launch, supported by the Astronomy and Physics Division of NASA's Office of Space Science, cost less than $200,000. The balloon, a standard 40-million-cubic-foot model, cost about $120,000, plus another $12,000 for the helium to fill it. The cost of payload integration and launch services, about $25,000, was also absorbed by NASA, as par of the operating costs of the agency's National Scientific Balloon Facility.
Had Grindlay launched his payload on a Delta II rocket, it would have cost between $40 and $50 million for the service. Yes, the payload would have orbited and returned data for years, as opposed to hours. But the low cost of a balloon launch places it well within the budget of university research groups of modest size, and recently, a few noteworthy discoveries made by such groups suggest that scientists look again at the humblest of launch vehicles.